The Case for Loving Hans Hofmann, Pioneering Teacher to the Abstract Expressionists

Andrew Russeth


June 16, 2020 5:00pm


Hans Hofmann routinely receives more credit as a teacher than as an artist in studies of his era, his most enduring work came only at the end of his long career, and his paintings regularly straddle the line between various schools (elements of Cubism, Fauvism, and more cohabit), all of which has made him a tricky figure to pin down and properly appreciate. But he’s an underrated giant of 20th-century art hiding in plain sight.

Plenty of successful artists spend a lifetime fixated on one visual idea. Hans Hofmann was the exact opposite, rethinking his art and rethinking it again, bobbing and weaving for decades. Along the way, he inspired countless essential artists, remade his life after fleeing oppression, and produced some of the 20th-century’s most scintillating, most prescient paintings.

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A leading light of his day, Hofmann was safely ensconced in the history books before his death in 1966, a month shy of his 86th birthday. The Museum of Modern Art in New York organized a survey in 1963, and that same year sent a show about him and his myriad students on a grand tour of Europe and South America. Institutions around the world own his art.

However, if you could visit MoMA today, you would find not one of its four Hofmann canvases on view. And in art-historical accounts, he typically receives respectful but passing notice, more likely as a teacher than as a painter. Hofmann is, as the critic Charles Desmarais succinctly put it, “revered by many, but rarely loved.”

Here is the case for loving him.

Hofmann’s wildly varied paintings point the way toward a large swath of the most exciting contemporary abstraction. He was a gallant experimenter, refusing to settle on a single style for long. His career is a case study in spurning easy answers. “What I would hate most is to repeat myself over and over again,” he once wrote.

Two works from the same year illuminate his range. Summer Night’s Bliss (1961) is a storm of smoldering color, patches of raspberry, mustard, and rose diving amid black and brown clouds. It’s exemplary of Hofmann’s “push-pull” technique, where the interplay of colors and shapes creates the illusion of space and movement. A seed of Cecily Brown is here. Meanwhile, Delirious Pink (1961) is a white canvas adorned with just a few fast, almost slapdash, bursts of color. The spirit is joyous and triumphant, but the breezy insouciance of Michael Krebber stands not far off.

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View of the exhibition “Hans Hofmann: The Nature of Abstraction,” 2019, showing Goliath, 1960, left, and Fall Euphony, 1959, right.COURTESY UC BERKELEY ART MUSEUM AND PACIFIC FILM ARCHIVE

The late “slab” paintings, Hofmann’s most famous works (rightly so), are especially potent now. Monochromatic rectangles in numerous shades float atop gestural compositions, interrupting and occluding those supposedly freewheeling improvisations. They imagine the future color mastery of someone like Stanley Whitney and conjure worlds beyond the frame, suggesting paintings within paintings. Think of René Daniëls’s pictures of exhibitions and David Diao’s depictions of bodies of work. Advancing the language of Piet Mondrian, they’re also transitive paintings, avant la lettre. Painted at the dawn of the television age, they look like so many proliferating screens.

But beyond such visual parallels and rhymes, what makes Hofmann’s work so exhilarating is that it is often so gloriously, genuinely, unrepentantly ugly, to degrees the paintings of his contemporaries rarely are. There is too much happening in the them, and certainly too many competing colors. They only sometimes resolve themselves. Compare his robust palettes with the restrained ones of Lee Krasner, Jackson Pollock, or even Joan Mitchell (the finest of the gang, as critic Dave Hickey has maintained). You get the sense that Hofmann doesn’t know when to stop—or, more likely, doesn’t want to. In The Vanquished (1959), a garish “slab” is covered with a menacing, craggily black blob, blocking much of our view.

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Visiting Hofmann and his wife, Miz, in Provincetown, Rhode Island, in the late 1950s with her husband, the critic Clement Greenberg, the writer Janice Van Horne recalls of the artist, “I saw him sitting alone in the backyard, plunged so deep inside himself that I wondered if he would be able to find his way back.” Quite regularly, he didn’t. Works appear unfinished and unfixed. Because of that, it can be difficult to picture specific Hofmanns in your head. These are artworks about process, journeys unto themselves. That’s a spirit that meshes well with our time’s suspicion of definitive, indelible images. Many of the key abstract painters today—Charline von Heyl, Amy Sillman, Mike Cloud—make pictures that look tripped up, off-balance. Their impetus is different, but the mode is pure Hofmann.

The reasons for Hofmann’s relative sidelining have been well-rehearsed by now. He spent fully half his life as a devoted teacher, running schools in Munich (from 1915 to 1933) and then New York, when the Nazis came to power. Art history has had difficulty reckoning with artists who wear more than one hat. But many are multitaskers now—teaching, designing, writing.

There is also the melancholy truth, often repeated, that Hofmann’s strongest work came only late in life. He spent a decade in Paris at the start of the century, painting in succeeding figurative styles, with Cézanne a lodestar. Almost all of this art was lost with his relocation to Manhattan; surviving examples, and his work in the 1930s, are intelligent but infrequently dazzling.

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View of the exhibition “Hans Hofmann: The Nature of Abstraction,” 2019, showing (left to right), Atelier (Still Life, Table with White Vase), 1938; Still Life–Round Table on Red with Palette and Painting, 1930; and Table with Fruit and Coffepot, casein and oil on plywood.COURTESY UC BERKELEY ART MUSEUM AND PACIFIC FILM ARCHIVE

As a teacher, though, he was a force of nature, a man with catholic tastes who invigorated students as disparate as Allan Kaprow, Louise Nevelson, Marisol, and Greenberg with his focus on free thinking. (“Art teaching is not soap manufacture,” he wrote in 1931.) “We couldn’t understand what the fuck he was talking about, but you felt your life was at stake with every word he uttered,” the artist Nick Carone is quoted saying in Mary Gabriel’s Ninth Street Women. “The atmosphere worked on you; it was serious, you were serious, and therefore you were an artist.” (But he was no paragon of progressiveness: Gabriel reports that he praised Krasner’s work, repellently, as “so good, you would not know it was done by a woman.”)

As artists take on crushing debt to attend market-pipeline M.F.A.s, Hofmann provides a fruitful counterexample: open up your own school, teach those who show up. (His efforts reverberate in projects like the Mountain School of Arts in Los Angeles and the Bruce High Quality Foundation University in New York, even if the spiritual emphasis of his philosophy can now seem arcane.) He was in the trenches—the type we could use more of in an era where so much curating and art dealing seems to happen via Instagram. Visiting with Pollock in 1942, he also provided one of the modern art’s great quips. “Do you work from nature?” Hofmann asked the then-unknown artist. “I am nature,” Pollock replied. (Let’s skip, as pointless, the debate about who dripped paint first: only one of them developed it.)

Intent on securing his artistic legacy, Hofmann shut his school in 1958. He was 78 years old and about to paint his best work, just as Ab-Ex went Pop. Eight years later, he was dead, and his star began slowly fading. Thankfully, there has been new momentum behind him lately. The Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive in California, where the artist deposited a trove of his paintings, organized a retrospective last year, and a catalogue raisonné was published in 2014.

It would be heartening to see a few more Hofmanns come out of storage now and then, but protean and uneven careers, like his, are difficult to package—to their credit. You have to argue about them, examine them from various angles, and see what they can do now.

In 1963, Kaprow did just that, dedicating an interactive artwork to his onetime teacher. Titled Push and Pull: A Furniture Comedy for Hans Hofmann, it called for its organizers to fill one or more rooms with furniture, junk, or other materials. “Everyone else can come in and, if the room(s) are furnished, they also can arrange them, accommodating themselves as they see fit,” Kaprow wrote. “Each day things will change.” It sounds precisely like the kind of frenetic freedom that Hofmann prized.


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